24 May, 2022


Celebrating Lester

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

He was born 96 years ago. He turns 96 today. There probably are a good many words one can use in describing him. Probably only one or two of them can describe him well. In any case, the worth of the man goes beyond words. Icons are like that. Words, sentences, even essays or books, can’t do justice. There is an extra something which eludes easy capture, which can’t be framed in an essay, much less an article. Still, if there’s probably one characteristic which sets him apart from the rest, it has to be this: humility. That is probably the rarest quality a human being can have. He has it. In plenty.

He is known for his films, of course. He is known for other things too, but they are marginal. 20 films over five decades isn’t much, but given the quality of his stories and fidelity to life they show, it’s hard to think of a greater director here. Period. The truth is that Lester James Peries is a giant, and like all giants, he takes accolade with a pinch of salt. Laurels are unneeded in his case, hence. Praise too. He is a figurehead, someone we can all point at and be proud of. As Sri Lankans. And human beings. No mean feat, that.

I first got to know him through his works, obviously. Rarely has a director given so much to his country. Lester has. Between Rekava and Ammawarune, there is a subtle, almost hard to notice gap. But this gap is bridgeable. Inasmuch as his films are all different from one another, there is something that brings them together. It’s certainly beyond my task to examine what it is. I can only try.

Lester James Peries

Lester James Peries

Tissa Abeysekara once wrote something about cultural icons. He claimed that some of them had to search for roots to validate their creativity, including Lester. But while this conflict between expression and the need for roots persisted in these artists, they never really made it a source of their creativity. Which is true, in a way. Perhaps we can apply it to Lester.

He did not really live through what he filmed. His childhood was insulated from his country. As the years went by, however, and like countless artists who clamoured after their beginnings, he persisted in making his works as authentic as it was possible. He succeeded.

The gap between author and creation is present no matter what the art-form is. Even in films, there is a world between the film and the director. True to form (and his humility), Lester acknowledged this when he stated that the filmmaker is comparable to an orchestra conductor. To him, cooperation is more important than the need to assert himself. Perhaps this distances him from every other “giant” in world cinema, Satyajit Ray included.

Is that what makes his films so unique? Yes, but not always. So what is it then? Why can’t we come up with a love story half as delicate (and authentic) as Golu Hadawatha? A story that relied so much on a thin plot as did Delovak Athara? Or a story that was as macabre and yet “classical” (in terms of mood and plot) as Nidhanaya?

Perhaps he was trying to reflect himself in them all. Or perhaps he was trying to make a point, that (as he once put it) “one does not make films in Sinhala or Tamil, but in the language of cinema”. I don’t know. All I know is that he succeeded in this. His films were limited in some respects of course. But in his attempt to reach out, to reconcile himself to the people he so delicately portrayed, he was closer to home than anyone else.

Humility. Yes, I almost forgot. He has it. Humility, after all, can make a man laugh at himself. He does that. That may be what best defines the man, and brings him closer to home. Which is not to say that he underestimates himself. But he maintains a rare sort of equanimity that cannot be defined. Ever.

From Rekava to Ammawarune, he had his share of ups and downs. By his own view, he was a “prestige failure”, at a time when our cinema was trying to unshackle itself of any commercial, over-the-top tendencies. As a (silent) tribute to the cinema he was trying to escape perhaps, he nonetheless included certain unnecessary, frilled sequences in his films. They irritate the viewer, admittedly. But there’s a reason why they are there in the first place.

Take the sequence of Sugath meeting Dammi’s mother and sister in Golu Hadawatha. For the first time in the film, we feel an unnecessary weight, especially when Dammi’s younger sister meets Sugath. There is comedy here, unneeded and frilled, which takes away an otherwise emotionally charged sequence. All his films have scenes like this. They take away and never add. But in the end, if we are to judge the director’s worth, they must be watched and absorbed. Why?

Because they all ring true. Yes, they are melodramatic. Overweight too. But they are needed, and precisely because they speak volumes about the people being depicted. None of Lester’s characters really break into hysterics or express their sorrows publicly. A wink here, a slight smile there, can express what a scream or plaintive cry never will. Through this, just like Satyajit Ray, he maintained a tremendous grace under pressure which differentiated his films to the last. The world venerates him. For this reason. But that’s not so important right now.

What’s important is that he’s still with us. As the only living artist from “1956”, whose works bridged the gap between an anglicised past and a country in search of roots, he is alive. He always will be, I suspect. So much so that every time we watch a film of his, live through the experience stamped on it, and realise that notwithstanding his self-imposed ideological parameters (he has never experimented in political cinema, thankfully) he has gone beyond anyone else in filming our sorrows and joys, we will remember that.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    “He is known for his films” yes lester is a good film maker. But Me. Devapriya, who wrote a very flowery article on Sumithra Lester’s wife only about two weeks ago now writes as if Lester is a model person.The fact that someone shines in one area does not mean he is also a gentleman.

    I have a very bad impression of this 95 year old film maker after his patron Mahinda Rajapakse named the old Dickmans road Lester James Pieris Mawatha. If you take a vote from those living down dickmans road 99% will say they want their road called dickmans road. If you take a vote in colombo 5 &6 ( the area where this road is)95% will say they want dickmans road.But MR who played politics all the time didnot care for the opinions of those residents.

    Lester is from Dehiwela and came to Dickmans road as a tenant. He benefited from Pieter kunemans housing law( 1973) and became a house owner in Dickmans road. If he had any ethics he should have objected to MR when he suggested naming a road after him while alive and also against the wishes of the local residents.

    The true nature of this deal became apparent when Lester went on TV (Rupavahini) during the 2015 presidential elections and in tears claimed that Patali Champika Ranawaka had defamed him by apparently using an old photo where he claims his picture stood and erased it subsituting another figure there. Lester was claiming defamation when his picture was not even there and no mention of him whatsoever. The film maker is no better than all the other MR followers. Why has he now dropped the case of defamation ?

    • 1

      What is wrong with renaming Dickman’s Road as LJP Mawatha? Is it the same as renaming (castrating) Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha as Nelum Pokuna Mawatha? Yes, he isn’t a saint. Neither am I. Neither are you. Unlike politicians and those whom you associate Lester with (i.e. Mahinda’s followers), he doesn’t bend backward and genuflect unconditionally. :)

  • 1

    You are really not saying much about Lester’s achievements as an artist and exactly what Lester had contributed. MJA

  • 2

    Uditha, I did read your comments in the quoted blogs.

    I did meet Lester at his home on 1 Jan 2004 and he was kind enough to talk to me for more than 2 hours. Yes, talking to him was fascinating. I too was struck by his humility.


  • 4

    uditha, people dont generally have roads and other public institutions( built with and maintained with public money)named after them when alive.It is a cheap thing to do and smells of influence peddling. MR does not know of these finer matters of ethic and standards. If Lester refused to have Dickmans road named after him the whole country, our culture, would have been enriched. He could have set a standard.

    The result of lester surrendering to MRs gifts was seen during the presidential elections when lester felt obliged to do a publicity stunt on behalf of MR by condemning Patali Champika.

    By that lester became another Jackson Anthony ! That was a bad let down by a man who should have known better. Of course all this does not mean Lester is a bad film producer. Only that he too did not rise above the rest

  • 1

    What is the matter with this Rotten Hatton? What harm is there if someone is honoured while he is alive? It is far better to acknowledge and recognise while one is still alive so he/she can appreciate it. Who the hell is Dickman anyway and who cares if Lester moved in from elsewhere. Just don’t be so mean. Try and be a bit more human! And if all your venom is about MR, blame him. Vituperation and childish rancour, that’s what that rant sounds like!

  • 2

    Mel sounds so much like so wal ! Why should I argue with you when you admit that you dont know who Dickman is ( who the hell is dickman !) So much like who the hell is Lasantha !

    Dickman is the man who donated his own land to build the road where Lester now lives comfortably. Please dont think I have something against Lester James Pieris who has made a name for himself in the film industry . But that does not mean that MR and his gang can change road and city names as they wish. During the JVP times in late 1980s the JVP named Kurunagala Athukoralapura after one of their dead leaders ! Do you like that ?Come on MR was just using old Lester for political mileage and he fell for it. When Lester could have educated MR about standards he became just another beneficiary.

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